The ability to quickly find out just about anything I want online is one of my superpowers. It’s also very boring. So when flea markets, libraries, bookstores and other physical retail locations again began to welcome personal visits, I was happy to start again in their aisles, unfettered and without obligation.
What I’m talking about isn’t really a purchase. It’s browsing – and it’s a dying art. The pandemic has turned the social side of consumption on its head, but e-commerce was already taking away the little pleasures of browsing: sinking into the floor model of a potential new sofa to test your cushions; Work your way through a vintage store to assemble a completely mismatched set of tableware.
Outside of China, time spent on retail apps globally increased by 45 percent last year, according to App Annie’s State of Mobile 2021 report, which tracks mobile usage. Now that much of North America is in a phase of increasing retail penetration, many stores are offering purchase subpoena only to manage customer flow and ensure health and safety compliance. This means that discretionary purchases are often made with a sales associate. The experience of taking a tour through a store can sometimes feel like the real-life version when you leave your online shopping cart and are subject to endless automated e-mails encouraging you to complete your purchase. Huh.
The middle class in the West has not long been without the luxury of browsing as browsing has been separate from shopping for more than a century. As Canadian journalist Pamela Klafke explains in her book, Spree: A Cultural History of Shoppinghandjob It was the Bon Marché department store in Paris that first broke with tradition in the late 19th century. Previously, the price of something was determined through bargaining and whenever customers entered a store, they were required to make a purchase. Suddenly, prices were fixed and browsing was encouraged.
Victorians were the first to embrace hobby shopping and began to convert retail stores into gathering places and social salons. Seasoned marketing pioneers such as Harry Selfridge observed that making shopping a recreational activity often resulted in customers being motivated to buy non-necessities.
Consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale wrote in a recent Royal Society for the Arts journal article about the benefits of soft, or indirect, in-person browsing, “The simple pleasure of browsing without the need to buy anything is worth in itself.” That pleasure can lead to a purchase, “but that doesn’t change the fact that the motivation that brings a customer to a store in the first place often has nothing to do with the need to buy something and the need to engage in a meaningful way. and engage in a diverse collection of experiences,” she writes.
Those pleasures include random conversations with strangers who are also browsing and can offer a recommendation, share an anecdote, or provide a tidbit of information. The e-commerce experience of digital shopping and contactless curbside pickup has been skillfully refined into a two-dimensional transaction, but it may not offer the quality that is at the core of browsing’s allure: serendipity.
In June, the Center for Creativity and Innovation at Webster University Geneva held a conference that explored the intersection of creativity and peace. One talk was about the creative spark generated by these pleasant and unexpected discoveries. The act of browsing mimics this experience: catching a glimpse of something from the corner of your eye; getting distracted and noticing things you weren’t really looking for; And being inspired. Technologies like virtual and augmented reality can approximate aspects of the real-life shopping experience, but the phenomenon online remains elusive – so much so that digital marketers and consumer pundits call it the luck difference.
“Consumers are increasingly seeking seriousness in online shopping, where information clutter and pre-programmed recommendation systems can make product choice frustrating or mundane,” said 2018 information about the serious shortages in the online shopping environment and How Management Studies has put it. Planning for when happy accidents can happen may seem counterintuitive, but once again the easiest way to confront those spirited examples of serenity is to shop in person and without the shopping commitment (aka browsing).
The challenge is to avoid engaging in consumerism and eliminate the need, while treating shopping as leisure again. “My golden rule is this: When you’re feeling bad about yourself or wearing clothes you don’t like, you’re not allowed to shop,” warns activist Aja Barber in her new book, Consumption: On colonialism, climate change, consumerism and the need for mass change. “It’s like grocery shopping when you’re hungry.”
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